Even though more people can now gather outside in New Jersey during the coronavirus pandemic, don’t start searching for al fresco restaurant bookings or planning a high school graduation ceremony. At least not yet, Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday.
Murphy announced the state is increasing the number of people allowed to gather outdoors in New Jersey from 10 to 25 as the state’s outbreak continues to show signs of slowing as Memorial Day weekend arrives.
But the governor said that does not include outdoor dining or graduation ceremonies. Eateries have been limited to takeout and delivery since March 17.
Murphy said Tuesday he hopes to allow outdoor dining at restaurants in “a matter of weeks.” But he said Friday “we’re not there yet" as the state continues to cope with the second-most COVID-19 deaths and cases among U.S. states.
“While it’s outdoors, you’re in close proximity and you’re sedentary by definition,” the governor said during his daily coronavirus briefing in Trenton. “You’re sitting, you’re having dinner. We want to make sure we get that right. I hope we’re sooner than later on that.”
Meanwhile, some lawmakers, parents, and students have called on Murphy to allow socially distanced graduation ceremonies outdoors, especially for high school seniors who have are already confined to remote learning as schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
Murphy said only Friday that he hopes to “have some guidance” on that by next week.
“We want to get this right, obviously,” he said. “Because this would be a big gathering, and it has to be done right.”
Murphy did not provide any specific data for why it’s now safe to allow gatherings of 25 people, nor why either outdoor dining or socially distanced graduations remains dangerous. But he said the goal is to avoid a surge in deaths and cases.
“Please, folks, we’re not doing this for any reason other than to keep as many people healthy and alive as possible,” the governor said.
State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, asked Murphy on Friday to take action on graduations, saying he’s “confident” school districts can find a way to do the ceremonies safely.
“Graduating from high school is a once-in-a-lifetime milestone that must not be missed," Singleton said. “These students have grown-up together, worked hard together, studied together, and trained together for four years, and this accomplishment should be celebrated publicly.”
New Jersey, a densely populated state of 9 million residents, has reported at least 10,985 deaths attributed to COVID-19, with at least 152,719 cases, since the outbreak began March 4. Only New York has more deaths and cases among American states.
Officials reported 146 new deaths and 1,394 new positive tests in New Jersey on Friday.
But with the state’s numbers improving, Murphy has been slowly peeling back his stay-at-home and business-closing restrictions the last few weeks. He has allowed parks to reopen, permitted nonessential retail businesses to offer curbside service, and said beaches can be open for the summer.
Murphy said Thursday morning more businesses — such as salons and gyms — may be allowed to reopen with guidelines “in a matter of weeks.”
Still, with the economy suffering massive losses, some lawmakers, businesses, and residents have been pushing the governor to move more quickly, allowing more businesses to allow customers inside as long as there are safety precautions.
More than 1.1 million New Jersey residents have filed for unemployment since mid-March, causing the state’s unemployment rate to surge to 15.3%, though the number of claims has fallen in recent days. Many say they’ve been waiting for weeks to get paid and have struggled with the state’s busy phone and online systems.
On Friday, a group of Democratic South Jersey lawmakers — Singleton, Assemblyman John Burzichelli of Gloucester County and Assemblymen John Armato and Vincent Mazzeo of Atlantic County — lobbied Murphy, a fellow Democrat, to allow for areas of the state that have seen fewer infections be given a more detailed timetable for reopening.
“Atlantic City and other shore communities around Cape May, Cumberland, Monmouth, Ocean and Salem counties, need the summer season to carry their families through the difficult off-season and winter months,” Burzichelli said.
Murphy said earlier this month New Jersey will not take a regional approach to reopening because the state is the most densely populated in the nation.
“We’re all packed in together,” the governor said.
Meanwhile, the state Republican Party announced Thursday it is suing Murphy to reopen small businesses, arguing he “arbitrarily” declared which businesses are considered essential.